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Preparing For Persecution (John R. W. Stott)


John R. W. Stott

(Summary of a sermon preached by John R. W. Stott)

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to Thy servants to speak Thy word with all boldness        (Acts 4:29; R.S.V.)

So began the persecution of the Christian Church. Since that day it has never ceased. It continues unabated today.

Peter and John, after healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate and preaching to the people, had been arrested, put in custody and brought to trial. The Supreme Jewish Council had forbidden them to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, and when Peter and John quietly replied that they must obey God rather than men, the Sanhedrin further threatened them (whether with imprisonment, the dreaded scourging or death we are not told) and released them. Peter
and John went straight to their Christian brethren to pray.

In many parts of the world today the persecution of Christians is open and undisguised. Violent attempts are being made to stifle the Church’s witness …. (We omit his examples, now outdated.) It is, therefore, instructive to note how the early Christians reacted in a time of persecution and under threat to give up their testimony. In particular, let us observe their attitude to God and their persecutors.

They Trusted the Sovereignty of God

The opposition of the authorities did not overthrow their Christian faith. They did not begin to doubt whether God was God. They did not complain against His providence or whine over their sufferings. No. They prayed. And as “they lifted their voices together to God” (v. 24), their hearts and minds were filled with the divine sovereignty.  They called God “sovereign Lord,” using the word despotes, which was used of the Roman Emperors and slave owners and signified a sovereign and absolute rule. They also called themselves His slaves (v. 20), and they described those who had been responsible for the death of Jesus as doing “whatever Thy hand and Thy plan had predestined to take place” (v. 28). They believed that God’s “never failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and on earth” (from the Book of Common Prayer). They did not deny either human responsibility or man’s freedom to choose, but they saw these things within the wider context of the over-ruling sovereignty of God. Herod and Pontius Pilate, Gentiles and Jews, rulers and people were free agents, who set themselves of their own purpose against the Lord and His anointed, and yet in so doing., they were accom-
plishing the very thing which God’s hand and purpose had fore-ordained.

1. First, they referred to creation. “Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (v. 24). God’s sovereignty is viewed first and foremost in His creative work. The whole universe and its contents (earth, sea and space) were brought into existence by the will of God. They owe their origin and continuance to the purpose and power of God. They have no inherent self-control; they are upheld by the authority of the living God. Only God depends for His being on Himself; all other things come from Him and depend on Him.

2. Secondly, they referred to prophecy. In their prayers, the apostles spoke not only of what God had done (in creation), but also of what He had said (in Scripture); not only of His creative work, but of His prophetic word. “Sovereign Lord … who by the mouth of our father David, Thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit ‘why
did the Gentiles rage … ‘” (vv. 25, 26). This is a quotation from Psalm 2, in which God clearly foretold the raging and rebellious fury of the world against Himself. Kings, rulers and people would conspire together saying “Let us burst their bonds asunder and cast their cords from us.” But the God who predicted the opposition of the world predicted also its final overthrow: “He who sits in the heavens will laugh them to scorn. The Lord will have them in derision.”

This prophecy of the world’s opposition to God’s Christ had been historically fulfilled. In that very city of Jerusalem there had been a vile conspiracy of Gentile and Jew, leaders and people, against the anointed Son of God. Yet the victory was not in the hands of God’s enemies. God had not abdicated His throne. His own
purpose of love will ultimately triumph.

These assurances should bring us comfort. The most frightening fulminations of men against God and Christ should not alarm us. If opposition breaks over our heads and we are threatened with extinction, let us take fresh courage from the works and words of God, from the evidence of His sovereignty to be found in what He has
made in the universe and what He has said in the Scripture.

 They Preached the Word of God

We have seen that the apostles felt no bitterness in their hearts towards God, and complained against neither His love nor His wisdom. But what about their persecutors? Did they show resentment towards them or seek to take revenge? Did they plot against their enemies as their enemies had plotted against Christ and them? Or did
they run away and seek safety in the hills and caves of Judea or Galilee? No. They did none of these things. They stayed at their post, although it meant imprisonment and scourging for some, and death for others, and they prayed for boldness to preach.

How positive they were! They were not content just to grit their teeth, to stay and stick it out. They loved their enemies and desired the eternal good of their persecutors. They longed to see them won for Christ and saved by Him for ever. They thirsted not for the destruction, but for the salvation” of their foes. They wanted them to hear the gospel, to embrace it and to enjoy its innumerable benefits.  So they prayed for utterance, for freedom of speech and courage to preach the word.

And God answered their prayers. The place where they were assembled was shaken. They were all filled anew with the Spirit, and in the power of the Spirit they preached the word of God with boldness.

Down the Christian ages persecution has too often caught the people of God unprepared. We need to prepare. Let me make three suggestions.

1. We need a deeper confidence in the Sovereignty of God. The whole world is in the grip of a vast convulsion. The old order is passing away with bewildering speed. Nothing is secure or certain in the future. Our greatest need is a quiet, serene, unshakable confidence in the sovereignty of God. So we must meditate on the revelation which God has given of Himself in His works and in His word, in nature and Scripture, until we are still and know that “He is God, exalted in the earth. Then no catastrophe can shake us.

2. We need a deeper experience of the Spirit of God. A persecuted Church cannot stand in its own strength or survive by its own power. It would be engulfed, its life stifled and its witness smothered, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our desperate need in the Church today of the fullness of the Holy Spirit will only
come home to us when we are driven to it by the violent opposition of the world.

3. We need a deeper knowledge of the Word of God. If the day comes when we are forbidden to preach or teach in the name of Christ, we cannot obey. The world can persecute the Church, but it must not be allowed to silence it. Our backs may be against the wall, but our mouths must remain open in testimony. But what would happen if they took the Scriptures from us, or if the Edict of Diocletian in A. D. 303 was re-enacted and all our Scriptures were ordered to be burned or confiscated? We must prepare soberly and sensibly for this eventuality too.

We need to store God’s Word in our hearts, meditating on it, memorizing it, digesting it, until it is so much part of us that it cannot be taken away from us. They may take God’s Book out of our hands, but they cannot take His Word out of our hearts.

This article is a reprint from the Word and Work magazine and was printed therein with permission from the author. (Date published undetermined). 


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Philippians 4:13